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Some of the biggest names synonymous with commercialising ideas and technology - including 3M, Corning, CocaCola and GE - joined forces at Front End of Innovation (FEI) 2014 in Toronto last week, to discuss and share the latest practices for successful innovation methodology.

In addition to an alignment of themes and methodologies supporting market facing product and service development, there were a number of motivational case studies from entrepreneurial disruptors such as Trend Hunter, and discussions that explored the importance of creating the right culture within a business to allow innovation to flourish.  It’s an important and often overlooked point – how can you expect to deliver on both linear and transformational innovation, if you don’t have a culture that will support and cultivate the route to realisation?

Neuroleaderologist Bill Greenwald spoke about the neuroscience of creative thinking, walking delegates through the parts of the brain that enable creative linkages to be made, while dispelling myths that creativity is genetically determined, or that the first ideas are always the best ideas.  Most of us can relate to having ideas that bubble to the surface when we’re doing something completely disconnected to the original challenge, often hours or days after the event. It seems that one of the problems with being creative ‘on cue’ is that new ideas often need to germinate, travelling from the unconscious to the conscious mind; and sometimes new ideas are automatically suppressed. So an important part of training for creativity is learning, quite literally, to be more open minded, to enable the various parts of the mind to work in constructive harmony.

Stress and low confidence have also been proven to be particular issues that crush creativity, to the point that if survival instinct kicks in (cue the vison of stereotypical angry, table thumbing boss) it can actually shut down the parts of the brain that make people creatively effective!

One of the most resonant and penetrating themes of the conference was discussion around the natural reluctance to move from formed ideas – dominant logic. Time and again names such as Blockbuster Video, Borders and Kodak were mentioned; all businesses who became so entrenched in the formulas that underpinned foundation success, that they were unable to see, or unwilling to invest in other ways of doing business.

A number of principles were promoted as vital for successful creativity:

• Divergent thinking is a vitally important part of defining a problem.
• Effective brainstorming has to be based on an identified problem, or even a half-baked idea, to avoid scattered thinking. (A by-product of an undefined problem is that some people’s creative centres can be turned down if an unfavourable concept direction emerges).
• Be open to new experience – do not be afraid to do things differently, to beat a new path, meet new people, learn new skills; these allow new and disruptive associative connections to be made
• Learn to quiet your mind; solitude and ‘think time’ are as important to creativity as passionate debate. Sometimes it’s better to break and come back.

Another speaker, Professor of International Business Vijay Govindarajan echoed the messages about dominant logic, elegantly demonstrating the point through the analogy of different styles of high jump in athletics over the years. By disruptively changing the style, moving from the Scissors, to the Western Roll, to the Straddle and eventually the Fosbury Flop, each disruptive change in approach allowed a step change in achieving previously unimaginable performance. This does not mean that the ‘scissors’ approach does not remain a relevant part of the toolbox (this might be your day-to-day or sustaining business model), but it will not enable disruptive innovation or change to reach new heights. If you carry on doing Scissors, you will not see the new opportunities, technologies, markets and so on.

Vijay promoted three principles:

1) Change the customer definition – by finding entirely new customers, or identifying customers who fit your target profile, but for some reason are not currently consuming.
2) Find a new value proposition
3) Find a new value chain architecture.

I found many of these discussions reassuring considering the way that we, Cambridge Design Partnership, strive to provide a culture to support creativity development.

We see multidisciplinary working as central to successful product development – all our projects benefit from our in-house team of researchers, designers, scientists and engineers. Front-end and primary research activities always include members of the design team so that the seeds that will eventually germinate from insight to user experience and solution translation over the weeks and months are sown right at the start.

And as a practical example, all staff are persuaded to move desk locations in the office regularly. This means that entrenched disciplinary silos cannot be allowed to form, and the slight disruption of the move aside, within days, new relationships and conversations are formed that drive refreshed sharing of experience and ideas.

When discussing some of our working practices with fellow FEI delegates over coffee there was surprise that our Directors’ desks are situated around the open office, amongst staff of all levels of experience. The intent is to create a flat management structure that empowers project leaders to have the same responsibility for excellence as their senior colleagues, reinforcing that they shouldn’t ask for permission to reach for the transformational.  It’s not that the doors to the management team are always open, there simply are no doors – and we think this is a tremendous philosophy for disruptive innovation.

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